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Best of Northern Ireland: Cycle around stunning Strangford Lough

Thousands of cyclists traversed the County Down landscape during this weekend’s Gran Fondo Giro d’Italia, with pedal power taking them across countryside drumlins, twisting roads and to mountain peaks with spectacular views.

But if the challenging 174km Mourne route sounds a little too daunting, the 58km Strangford route makes a fabulous itinerary for any level of cyclist at any time of the year.

The island-dotted lough, with Spa hotels, golf courses and Michelin-rated restaurants, was practically invented for relaxing weekends. And the county is dripping with history and heritage too, with picturesque towns and villages to visit along the way.

The Gran Fondo race starts at Stormont Estate in East Belfast, following public roads up a gradual climb through Moneyreagh. You could take the pressure off, however, and instead follow the Comber Greenway– a tranquil and mostly flat green corridor which brings you from Belfast into Comber.

This historic town is home to Northern Ireland’s best local market, selling seasonal, award-winning food. There’s also Indie Fude, a treasure trove selling small batch produce lovingly crafted in kitchens throughout the country.

Pick up some tasty produce then follow signposts for Castle Espie, the only wildlife and wetland centre in Ireland. Purchase a bag of seeds at reception and you’ll have some of the many species of rare and endangered ducks and geese eating from the palm of your hand.

Throughout June and July, the duckery becomes home to a huge number of ducklings, goslings and cygnets.

Pedal on to Nendrum Monastic site, believed to have been set up by St Machaoi in the fifth century. It’s thought to be the best example of a pre-Norman monastic site in Northern Ireland.

It occupies a beautiful location overlooking Strangford Lough, a designated Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty, Northern Ireland's first marine nature reserve and the British Isles' largest sea inlet. The main body of the lough has at least seventy islands along with many islets, bays, coves, headlands and mudflats that you will pass during your ride.

Set off to Whiterock and Sketrick Island, cycling over the little causeway to Daft Eddy’s bar and restaurant. Cyclists from far and wide make this pilgrimage for a picturesque pint overlooking the stunning shores.

Finish the trip in style with a meal to remember. County Down has been central to Northern Ireland’s food and drink renaissance and is rippling with great restaurants. Balloo House, The Poacher’s Pocket and the Old Schoolhouse serve truly great modern Irish cuisine.

If you would like to enjoy a short break, there is a wide range of excellent accommodation available across the area ranging from luxurious hotels, to B&Bs full of character and charm, and self-catering options as a home from home.

Visit the Discover NI website to plan your break.

Nearby attractions

Strangford Sea Safaris

Let Strangford Sea Safaris show you why the Vikings named some of the fastest tides in Europe as Strangford Lough – strong ford. Jump into a RIB and soak up everything Strangford has to offer. Submerge yourself in the sights and sounds of the surrounding coastal towns, islands, shipwrecks, up close views of seals and Game of Thrones film locations

Scrabo Tower

Scale the stairs to the top of County Down’s most iconic monument, Scrabo Tower. Standing 540 feet above sea level and 125 feet high, it has incredible views of Strangford Lough, County Down and even Scotland. The tower also houses an exhibition detailing its history. A perfect setting for a family day out and some tall tales over dinner.  

Rowallane Gardens

Early summer is the time to make a pilgrimage to Rowallane Gardens to view the magnificent spreading branches of the handkerchief tree (Davidia involucrate), plus colourful rhododendrons, magnolias and lots of herbaceous plants such as primulas, blue poppies and peonies.

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